IT IS DIFFICULT to predict revolutions. George Rude, the leading left-wing historian of the French Revolution once wrote that an intelligent observer of the French scene, native or foreign, would hardly have predicted in 1787 the coming of the revolution despite a variety of straws in the wind. There was probably no closer student of France at the time than Arthur Young, the leading British expert on agriculture, who visited France three times for extended periods on the eve of the revolution. While he saw a number of things that were wrong with the country, he certainly did not realize that a great revolution was coming.
Not as unusual as one might think. In Russia, there was no more ardent a protagonist of the revolution than Vladimir Ilich Lenin, who had devoted his whole life to the cause. And yet Lenin, in a lecture in Bern in January 1917, was quite pessimistic about the prospects of the masses rising up, telling his audience that the great event might not even happen in his lifetime. But it did happen just one month later. And by the end of the year, his party, the Bolsheviks, had taken power.
In our age it seems to have become even more difficult to make these sorts of predictions, perhaps because there has not been a revolution for a long time. The term is bandied about rather freely and carelessly. When I was asked many years ago to prepare the entry “revolution” for the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences there was broad agreement that a revolution was something sui generis; today it seems to have become a synonym for rebellion, coup d’etat, mutiny, uprising and half a dozen other forms of upheaval. All too often we forget a once generally-accepted principle: namely that a true revolution involves a number of preconditions.
First, there is the spark needed to trigger the uprising. In 1917 it was a strike in Petrograd; the revolution in Munich in 1848 broke out because an umbrella had fallen (or was thrown down) from the top seats of a theater and the public mistook the noise for a gunshot; in Brussels in 1830 the performance of a romantic opera (La Muette de Portici) in which the aria of Masaniello, a Napolitan fisherman, denounced the injustices which had been committed by the Spanish Habsburg rulers, led to the division between Belgium and Holland.
In the case of the Arab awakening of 2011, 46-year-old policewoman Fedia Hamdi struck Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian stallholder in a market, and in protest he burned himself alive (in the subsequent investigation it appeared that in fact Hamdi had not struck him—and she was acquitted). But there was enough tension and discontent within the country—and in particular with Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali—that had it not been for the unfortunate Bouazizi, some other incident might well have caused the overthrow of the regime.
Next, for a revolution to succeed, it needs a revolutionary movement capable of making use of it. And unless the party in power, the establishment, has been greatly weakened—lost its self-confidence and the popular support on which it rests—the revolutionary movement may still be defeated. Extreme and efficient dictatorships—such as that of Hitler or Stalin—leave no room for maneuver. Even in the case of Tsarist Russia it took a lost war (1904/5) and three years of heavy losses (close to two million killed) in another to bring about a revolution. Tocqueville observed that a dictatorial regime faces the greatest danger when it is trying to reform itself.
WHY, THEN, WERE Mubarak and Ali ousted so easily while other dictators are putting up a more determined resistance? Largely because they had stayed in power for too long and had become soft and lazy. That Mubarak’s regime was corrupt and a dictatorship is beyond doubt. But it was in all probability not the most corrupt, just a little bit worse than the Middle Eastern norm. Those who claim that Mubarak stole seventy billion dollars seem not to know the difference between a million and a billion; it would have made him the richest or the second richest man in the world. So far all that has been found is one apartment in London’s Knightsbridge; no doubt more accounts and properties will be discovered. True, those in power might have stolen a little more than customary, but probably less than Qaddafi. Egypt’s overall economic balance sheet these last few years had been quite positive (in contrast to that of Syria). True, not enough had trickled down and, above all, the rulers had not conveyed the impression that their states were moving forward. But the general climate of corruption in Egypt generated envy and hatred primarily because it lasted too long.
Mubarak’s dictatorship was not the most cruel and repressive, for if it had been it is unlikely that a book like The Yakoubian Building (and the movie based on it) could have been published, depicting quite realistically all the social ills besetting contemporary Egypt. It is also unlikely that a leading public intellectual like Tariq al-Bishri would have been able to publish his bitter attacks against the state.
These were old-fashioned authoritarian states without a populist ideology and without a well-oiled propaganda machine. Some have defined the Egyptian regime (and some others in the Middle East) as “Sultanist.” A term popularized by Max Weber, it connotes a despotic and unpredictable regime in which everything depends on one person, the ruler. But Mubarak’s sway was by no means unlimited nor was it unpredictable.